aul Rahe’s first book, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (North Carolina, 1992), traced a great arc of political thought from Tyrtaeus and Pericles to Hamilton and Jefferson. It came in at 1,200 pages and 4.2 pounds in print. Rahe’s departmental review committee, scrutinizing the infant, didn’t know what to make of it. That a green assistant professor of philosophy could form no proper judgment of the monster is perhaps unsurprising. It is more significant that the committee’s ranking member, an accomplished historian, objected to the importunate newborn and had to be corrected by wiser heads. In fairness, his confusion was not altogether unforgivable. For Rahe thinks and writes big. He is an Historian, an increasingly rare species in the contemporary academic jungle.

The Spartan Regime

By Paul E. Rahe

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Historians inquire into things most needful: the means devised by spirited and intelligent men to order, nourish, and defend human life, and the successes and failures of these experiments. They regard the past as a treasure of political instruction, paid for in blood, and recoverable only by toil. Distrusting the abstraction of the modern mind, they begin at the beginning, learning ancient languages in order to study the vanished lives of rugged, pious, and law-abiding peoples—Spartans, say, or Jews, whom the Lacedaemonian king Areus recognized as brethren—whose experience of fundamental human problems, of reality, was incomparably direct, fresh, and concrete.

Historians cherish the writings of their tribe’s ancestral fathers. They recall and absorb the deep and prudent understanding of the likes of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle, who grasped that civic education and moral formation (paideia), together with the distribution of offices and honors (politeuma), are the heart and soul of a political community. “My aim here,” Rahe writes in The Spartan Regime, “is to resurrect this largely forgotten political science and demonstrate its power.”

With imagination disciplined by scholarship, Historians seek to divine the living nature of a vanished forest from some surviving trees of fact. To this end, they ponder virtually all things human: regimes, laws, and education; military organization and practices; poetry, music, myths, rituals, festivals, and the calendar; exercise, sport, hunting, diet, and medicine; kinship structures; political associations; agriculture, manufacture, coinage, markets, and trade; customs and regulations pertaining to initiation, sex, marriage, inheritance, burial, and memorialization. Only then do they enter the Temple, where they furnish priestly service to Mnemosune—Memory, mother of the Muses—dedicating to her the fruits of their labor, assiduously cleaning her altars, and carefully inspecting all offerings.

The Spartan Regime is the prelude to a projected trilogy on the life and death of Lacedaemon. Chunks of the book are reprinted from Republics Ancient and Modern, which was itself reissued as a paperback trilogy in 1994. It does no injustice to Rahe or his readers, many of whom will be new to his work, to observe that he has found it necessary to divide and redistribute his first, great offering. That said, The Spartan Regime breaks important new ground in preparation for another grand project.

The central concept in ancient Greek statecraft is that of a politeia, or regime. The word refers to “the one way of life of a whole polis” and first appears in connection with Sparta. This one way of life rests on deliberate political production—implemented through the nurture and rearing of infants and children, the education, toughening, and military training of youths, and the trials and contests of mature adults—that is designed to mold the raw material of human beings into citizens capable of living by, and passing down to their children, a particular set of constitutive practices and beliefs. The Lacedaemonians were acknowledged masters of this field. “Sparta,” Rahe observes, “exercised greater control over her citizens than any regime that has existed anywhere else at any time.” Enduring in good order and against all odds for many centuries, the city won universal respect among Greeks and barbarians alike. The Spartans time and again proved their prowess in battle; they were essential in turning back the Persian horde in the time of Xerxes and repeatedly stunned the Athenians on their way to victory in the Peloponnesian War.

Who were the Spartans? How did they rise, and why did they fall? Rahe’s attempt “to see the Spartans whole” is a challenge befitting a seasoned veteran. Sparta’s mixed regime was a paradox to other Greeks, and its details were poorly understood. The Lacedaemonians were notoriously isolated and secretive, and much of what their contemporaries reported of them is now commonly considered a “mirage,” woven of the unsupportable impressions of overawed outsiders. As a political theorist recently remarked to me, “ancient history is such bubbe meise.”

Rahe pushes back against the extreme skepticism of recent scholarship on Sparta, and he even defends bubbe meises. He observes that the primary sources regarding Lacedaemonian ways and institutions were produced by writers who “knew far more than we can ever hope to know”—Xenophon, for example, was indebted to the Spartans for a gift of land, served their city in an official capacity, and arranged for them to educate his sons—but who also advanced fundamental criticisms (subtly, in Xenophon’s case) of the regime’s aims, laws, and claims to virtue. Beyond this, Rahe seeks historical insights in ancient lore or collective myth, in respect to which “naïve credulity is more apt to bring one close to truth than is a proud and systematic refusal of trust.” (Exhibit A remains Schliemann’s discovery of the remains of ancient Troy on the basis of the Iliad’s topography.)

The first two chapters of Rahe’s book offer an overview of education and political organization in Sparta that also nicely introduces the ancient science of regime analysis. The third examines the Spartans’ ethnic origins and early conquests, reconstructs the lines of its Agiad and Eurypontid kings, documents the seventh-century military revolution of phalanx (hoplite) warfare, and describes the moral and political revolution brought about by the abandonment of earlier, aristocratic modes of combat. The final chapter explains the emergence of the “grand strategy” that sustained Sparta’s distinctive way of life—a rough and competitive, but also outdoorsy, musical, and eminently companionable existence “of great privilege and pleasure,” as Rahe rightly recognizes.

The leisure and freedom of Lacedaemon’s happy comrades-in-arms rested on their shared “opinions, passions, and interests”; on a mixed constitution of prudent checks and balances; and above all on the subjection of the rebellious helots (agricultural slaves) of Messenia and Laconia, vast territories that the Spartans eventually realized they could control only with the help of other cities. To forge the necessary alliances, Rahe argues, the Spartans abandoned the “Dorian” policy of conquest and enslavement and embraced a new “Achaean” policy of “overthrowing tyranny, sponsoring oligarchy, and providing protection in return for allegiance.” Judging by the immediate sequel to The Spartan Regime, The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge (which Yale confusingly published first, in 2015), Rahe’s four volumes will be the definitive study of how the Spartans made good on, and fell short of, their claim to be champions of liberty; how they adapted to new geopolitical challenges; and why their polity ultimately decayed.

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